Nothing swims like a deer.
Unless it’s two deer, stroking it across the Cooper River, chugging for Daufuskie Island, still a mile away.
Chris Shoemaker captured the sight on his iPhone early one morning last week and posted it on Instagram.
For a kid raised on the May River in Bluffton, who could spin a cast net when it was twice as tall as he was, it was just another day at the office. His May River Excursions business keeps him in the water, where his father also has made his living, shrimping and running a ferry boat to Daufuskie.
Shoemaker sees deer swimming right often, but he had never seen two together. From a distance, they look like people in the water. A river rat knows you ease up and leave them alone, let them cross. River yahoos, the most common species in the water this time of year, run up on the deer and try to help them but only scare them.
“The deer knows what it’s doing,” Shoemaker said.
They’re pretty fast, and when they get up in the marsh grass and pluff mud, they seem to just run right through it.
“Everything swims,” Shoemaker said.
He’s seen armadillos, raccoons, possums and snakes out in the waves. His father has seen foxes and coyotes. He’s seen an eight-point buck and a family of six little raccoons.
One cold February morning, Chris Shoemaker rounded a bend, and lying on the bank was an alligator with an otter hanging from its mouth.
“You never know what you’re going to see, if you keep your eyes open,” he said.
But his old man, Stephen Shoemaker, sees a sadder side of the picture.
“I can tell you about what you don’t see,” he said.
Rock of ages
The Instagram shot tells an ancient Lowcountry story.
Nobody has deeper roots around here than the Shoemakers.
The family tree goes back to Dr. Henry Woodward, the first British colonist of colonial South Carolina. He arrived in Beaufort in 1666.
The tree’s branches wind through the Hutson, Huguenin, Colcock and Mew families.
In that tree are John Rufus Mew, one of the four Citadel cadets who fired the first hostile shots of the Civil War; attorney and state House Speaker William Ferguson Colcock; and Cornelius J. Colcock, the first attorney to practice in Ridgeland.
“You find an old cemetery from Charleston to Purrysburg, and there’s going to be somebody in it I’m related to,” Stephen Shoemaker said.
His grandfather built a log cabin store in the Switzerland community south of Ridgeland on U.S. 17. Joseph Francis “Cap’n Joe” Shoemaker’s wife, Pauline, was the postmistress there. And in the 1930s, he built about half a dozen small cabins out back that had to be among the first motel units of the Lowcountry.
Stephen’s father, George, also ran the store. He was known for his handmade snake hooks. Snake hunters like Carl Kauffeld, who put the incredible array of Jasper County snakes on the world map in his 1957 book “Snakes and Snake Hunting,” used Shoemaker’s Store as a place to shoot the breeze.
Across the highway and over the railroad tracks, in a clubhouse at the end of an allay of oaks, sat the quail-hunting heads of America’s wealthiest families sipping brandy at their private Okeetee Club.
Welcome to the Lowcountry.
If you looked at Chris Shoemaker close enough, you might find gills.
His was half raised on a shrimp boat. His parents met on a shrimp dock — at Hudson’s Seafood House on the Docks on Hilton Head Island.
Stephen Shoemaker tied up his 68-foot Desco trawler there. He ran the Jason for 23 years. Those days — the 1970s — were the heyday of the Lowcountry’s commercial fishing industry. Fifteen local boats regularly worked from those old docks on Skull Creek.
Kathleen Maccaro Shoemaker was at that time running the dock for her sister and brother-in-law, Brian and Gloria Carmines, who had just bought Hudson’s restaurant and dock. The waterfront rocked with activity every afternoon, with the smell of diesel and the sound of Gullah women heading boxes of fresh shrimp.
Stephen’s brother, Bernard, was also in that fraternity of shrimpers. But when imports swamped the market, they both went to work running ferries for Haig Point on Daufuskie.
“I got tired of always signing the front of the check and wanted to sign the back,” Stephen says.
The fish are not as plentiful as they used to be: mullet, catfish, crab, oysters, shrimp.
Bernard is still doing it, but Stephen works for his son these days. Chris Shoemaker’s tourism-related business is six years old and up to five boats. Also helping him is his brother, Matthew, a longshoreman in Savannah.
Chris says visitors like to go out and see what he sees, especially the dolphins.
But Stephen Shoemaker can’t help but think about what they can no longer see.
“It’s a changed environment,” he says. “The fish are not as plentiful as they used to be: mullet, catfish, crab, oysters, shrimp.”
On land, it’s the same for birds and snakes, he says.
He says the water table has dropped, and the swamps have dried up — now home to massive housing developments and car dealerships. No freshwater, other than stormwater runoff, is feeding the May River anymore, he said.
“There’s nothing coming from the Great Swamp,” he said. “We used to have artesian wells. You ask somebody about an artesian well today, and they’d look at you like you were crazy.”
He said he’s seen deer swim away from the development in the upper reaches of the May River, come ashore closer to town, take a look around, and head back to where they came from.
“I can’t blame ’em,” he said.